Poverty and Pig’s Feet

uh, no.
uh, no.

My father was the son of a Polish serf who came to America and bought five acres and raised eight kids. He must have thought he was very rich, since owning land was the criteria for being rich in feudal Poland. He must have thought he had really arrived when a Polish immigrant woman of “nobility” married him. Nobility in Poland just meant that your family owned land.

Yet we Americans would say my father’s family was very poor. Pop said he was embarrassed by the black bread he took to school for lunch; the American kids had white bread. Like all poor farming families, they raised pigs, which are efficient converters of grain into protein. Pig’s feet were a particular treat.

I never learned to speak Polish. I never felt rich, even when Pop bought a thirty acre farm, which would have made him a Lord of the Manor back in Poland.  And I never ate pig’s feet. I mean, do you know where they walk with those feet?

But I would make pig’s feet for Pop sometimes, knowing that he liked them. I would leave the room when he ate them-they gave me the shivers. He ate them with the sauerkraut from the barrel they kept in the barn, along with a chunk of rye bread-white bread, thank you very much.

When I worked in the ghetto with poor kids, they also ate pig’s feet; pickled pig’s feet, available in big jars at the corner store. I think they cost 50 cents each and they fished them out of the jar and handed them to the kids wrapped in a square of waxed paper. I left the room when the kid’s ate their pig’s feet. They asked why. I said “They give me the shivers.” The kids laughed at me; they often did, they thought I was a very odd white woman, but they accepted me anyway. More than that, actually, we loved each other and accepting oddness may be a prerequisite for loving a person.

But I’m not eating pig’s feet.

Why not? Protein is protein. Food is food. An old black woman told me that slaves were given the extremities of the pigs to eat and “pot likker,” the juice left after boiling collard greens, which could be sopped up with cornbread. I told her all the vitamins from the greens were actually in the pot likker. “That’s why those white folks were so sickly then,” she laughed.

I love different cultures. We can learn so much from each other. What was life like back in Poland? What was life like on the plantation? How did you survive? Did you tell jokes and sing and dance? I want to learn all those things, I want to make black bread.

But I’m not eating pig’s feet.


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